How to be a Brilliant Conference Chair

The recent Guardian article that Joanne Begiato, Steven Gray, Isaac Land I I wrote on The Six Best Conference Questions turned out to be so popular that we decided to write another one! This time about conference chairing. An edited version of this article appeared in the Guardian Higher Education Network on the 2nd December, but here’s the full director’s cut.


How to be everyone’s favourite Conference Chair

By Joanne Begiato, Steven Gray, Lorna M. Campbell and Isaac Land

We’ve all got an anecdote about the worst conference chair we have ever experienced. The chair who forgot or mispronounced the speakers’ names, or (horrors!) forgot to turn up altogether, leaving the bewildered speakers to introduce themselves. The chairs who let questions ramble on through self-interested thickets or didn’t notice the shy hand raisers, only seeing the professor of gesticulation. Or how about the occasional chair who takes the chance to tell the audience about his/her fascinating research and superior knowledge? And don’t we all dread the chair who can’t tell the time, appears not to care that the audience is gasping for a drink, or lets that awkward silence drag on once all the questions have dried up. The painfully self-aware among us know in our heart of hearts that we have all been that chair at one conference or another (possibly after a late night at the conference dinner, not entirely unrelated events). Although such chairing debacles are something of a scholarly rite of passage, which help us to hone our chairing and facilitation skills, our aim here is to help you avoid these pitfalls and offer a six-point check-list so you can become everyone’s favourite conference chair.

Be Prepared and Organised

Make sure contact your speakers in advance, either at the conference or via email, to ask for a short biography or check if they’re happy for you to use their biography and title from the conference programme (quite often people change the focus of their paper by the time they come to present). Then, find your speakers at coffee before the session so you can introduce yourself, find out how they prefer to be addressed and check how to pronounce their names writing them down phonetically if necessary. If needs be, ask whether presenters will be using the conference PC or their own laptop, and make sure you know where to find the tech support to get them connected. In order to assure seamless transitions, ensure that presentations are preloaded, and check that your speakers know how to find and open their own presentations. And if the tech gods let you down, know how to contact the IT support.

Be Fair and Inclusive

When introducing the speakers do not give one of them more prominence than the others, whoever they might be, and highlight each speaker’s key publications and achievements equally. Be prepared for the eventuality that when you open the floor for questions you are met with stony silence, by preparing your own question for each speaker. Nonetheless, if there is a flurry of hands, don’t hog the questions or abuse the chair’s prerogative. Prevent questioners from dominating, bullying, or patronising speakers by courteously reminding them to come to the point and you scan the audience to ensure early career researchers and more reticent colleagues have an opportunity to address the panel. Where possible, try to make sure that all the speakers get and least one comment or question so that none of them leave vowing never to give another paper again.

Be Impartial and Selfless

Keep anecdotes about your own research to coffee time and let the speakers take the spotlight. If you have found links with your own work, or know of references that might help inform speakers’ research, talk to them or email them later and focus on their own findings during the session. Be sensitive and helpful and encourage early career researchers and new speakers and boost their confidence by thanking them for their presentation and showing an interest in their work. Know when to save your own questions for another time because the audience has a lot to ask.

Be Visibly Attentive

You are the chair, on full view and managing the panel, so listen attentively to the speakers, and take notes on relevant points that might be used for questions later. Save your knitting, crocheting, nail filing, and yawning for your evenings in front of the TV. Sit on the podium without fidgeting, or in the front row where you can maintain eye contact with your speakers. When its time for questions, stand to the side of the podium scanning the audience for questions, leaving centre stage for your speakers. If multiple audience members raise their hands, make eye contact with each and nod discretely so they know you have seen them and you return to them to invite them to ask their questions when the opportunity arises.

Be Polite but Firm

Always begin promptly and make sure you time each speakers’ slot individually, so that each has his/her fair share of the session. However, awkward, you must keep people to time because the alternative is unfair. Be prepared to tackle a speaker even if s/he is higher up the academic ranks, self-important, or simply stubborn enough to ignore you. To achieve this difficult task, agree with your speakers in advance what sign you will use to alert them that they must begin drawing their talk to a close, such as a note or finger gesture (no, not that one). If necessary, know when to stop believing the speaker’s promises that they are about to conclude and stand up and inform them firmly that you will have to stop them there in order to introduce the next presenter. By the way, for all speakers reading this, let’s make the chair’s life more comfortable by ending when asked!

You Know When to Finish

When you get to question time, it is your responsibility to lead the discussion by encouraging dialogue between audience and speakers. Questions at the end of a paper can be the most rewarding part of the session; otherwise speakers may as well have stayed at home and read their paper to the cat. Do this simply by ensuring that everyone who wants to speak has the opportunity to do so, and try to read faces and feel the silences. This way you know when the questions have dried up and it’s time to thank the speakers and the audience, and say how great the session has been. Even if there are more questions, when the time for the panel to end arrives, tie things up neatly, thereby allowing everyone to happily head for tea and biscuits or, better still, the pub (where they won’t talk about you, because you did your job well).

Oh, and we were very pleased that this article was the editor’s top pick in last week’s Higher Education Network Newsletter 🙂

conference chair editors pick

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